A college-aged man in an American flag T-shirt shook up a bottle of champagne and sprayed it on the crowd below his perch atop tree branches. Despite the chill, no one really seemed to mind, and the large contingent of cops and Secret Service agents paid him and his fellow tree-climbers no mind. Friends jumped on each other's backs, lovers embraced, and everyone whooped and walloped. Tears were shed. Bottles of booze were passed about, and a whiff of weed hung in the background. Off-duty taxis rolled up 18th Street, the drivers laying on their horns and thrusting their hands out the window for high-fives from the flock of pedestrians joining the revelry.
It was a little after 11:30 P.M. NBC and then CNN had just called the presidential election for Barack Obama and his city was ready to celebrate in front of the house he'll call home for the next four years. Things had been relatively quiet earlier, but as soon as the networks finalized the results, thousands began pouring in from both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue, filling the 1600 block for an impromptu party. A woman expertly hula-hooped for a crowd of onlookers while nearby a college-aged girl cleared a space and did the worm on the street. In the thick of the crowd a clearly inebriated man pushed past me wearing a full white rabbit suit. Toots from vuvuzelas pierced through the noise. The standard "Four More Years" and "Obama" chants were interspersed with ones fine-tuned for this election: "Mitt Romney Don't Pay No Taxes," went one. A group of women chanted "My Vagina."
A group of four people in their early thirties—three men, one woman—stood in a circle a little ways back from the main ruckus, smoking celebratory cigars. "We want to finish what we started in the first four years," Chaz said. "For me," said Joe, "the biggest reason was the ability to appoint new Supreme Court justices as the current crop retire and leave the court." The four had watched the results at the nearby AFL-CIO headquarters. "A lot of us thought it might be another week before we knew the results, like a recount or something," Ollie said. "To know that Florida may go to recount but not matter is a big sigh of relief."
Victoria Mauro, a petite 20-something in a red peacoat, had been watching the results at home in Tenleytown with her roommates and friends. One had brought over a few arts supplies and once Obama's victory became official the six made signs, one letter each to form an "O-B-A-M-A-!" then hopped in a car down to the White House. "I love his social policies most of all, gay marriage, equality for women, the DREAM Act is very exciting," Mauro told me, holding the exclamation point as people took photos of the group.
Thanks to the proximity of Georgetown and George Washington universities, the festivities had a strong college party vibe. But the crowd represented the emerging demographics that allowed Obama to trump Mitt Romney's old-school Republican Southern Strategy. Young people. African Americans. Asian Americans. Hispanics. Women. Foreign languages and accents peppered the air. Obama's reelection had proved that the days when old white men dictate the nation's fate are a thing of the past, and at least for Tuesday, the groups that have now elected the first African-American president to a full eight-year-run saw an emerging picture of a nation that is more progressive than the mainstream media tends to portray.
"I've been trying to get this guy re-elected for four years," said William Gordon, a 24-year-old wearing an Obama T-shirt underneath his grey cardigan. "It's just a great day to be an American. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. This is our house, we've got another four years."
"He really is a president for the people," said Bridgette, a young woman from Ohio who had cast an absentee ballot to help Obama in the all-important swing state. "He covers the issues we're all interested in and really affect us. It's really exciting that he's in there for another four years to correct the eight years that Bush did. It took eight years to mess it up, it's going to take eight years to fix it." As Bridgette called with her family back in Ohio, her friend Cherie Williams said she's hopeful that the next four years might prove even better for Obama. "Now he's going to really do it," she said. "He's going to be a firm president; he doesn't have to be worried about re-election."
Toward the end of the night I chatted with Peter Visceglia, a 25-year-old sporting blue and white star pants and an American flag tie. He'd voted for Gary Johnson that day and had been watching the results while partying at a bar in Dupont Circle. "I literally led a family from Brazil down to the White House," he said. "I didn't mean to come here, but it was their first time in the country and they wanted to see it."
After two hours outside the White House, I called it a night. Notes became a challenge to write as my fingers went numb from the cold and it was time to watch Obama's victory speech, an oratory feat that proved to be one of his strongest from the 2012 campaign. As I waded back into the city to return to the Prospect's downtown office I passed a now-empty bar two blocks north of Lafayette Park. John King's voice boomed out from the bar, loud enough to be heard throughout the block, as wait staff cleaned up the mess created before the party had drifted south to the White House. The CNN election guru pumped out a string of stats on the Hispanic vote, noting that Republicans' future prospects were doomed if they did not adapt to the changing demographic realities of the country. If there were any Republicans milling about downtown D.C. last night they didn't need to hear that King's cautionary wisdom; the new voice of America could be heard loud and clear a few blocks away.